But Then, There Was Her

But Then, There Was Her

Synopsis: Arthur is reminded by his wife, Iris, that their love story will live on even if his memory doesn’t.

(Short story created for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, Round Two; promt: Romance, An Abandoned Building, A Disabled Person)

Arthur noticed his hands moving in a secret dance. His feet heavy against the gravel, the rest of his body stiff. He wasn’t sure where he was. He forced his hands into fists and squeezed his eyes shut hoping that perhaps when he opened them again, he’d be somewhere more familiar. No luck. Arthur blinked a few times and tried to take in his surroundings, searching for a clue to spark his brain into remembering something, anything. 

The building before him looked forgotten and abandoned. He saw a faded “For Lease” sign hanging in a crooked tilt on the padlocked entrance. Each window boarded up and left obsolete. The sky behind was dull and gray which only made the forsaken place look less inviting. So why had it called to him? 

Arthur saw his memories as marbles in a jar. He ached to grab one with delicate care but every time he did the shape of its round curves against the stacks of others would flatten and escape out of view. He shuddered against the cool air wishing he could be somewhere warm and familiar. Then, like flashes of lightning crossing through his mind, he remembered being in this place. Only it was different. It had been a restaurant. A lively restaurant. Yes. Arthur worked behind the bar crafting drinks and perfecting what he claimed was a flawless margarita. He hadn’t been the most talkative bartender but what he lacked in words he made up for in practiced skill and strong work ethic. He was grateful for the job because the hours allowed him to continue his graduate degree course load while still earning enough money to live and occasionally, have fun. Plus the restaurant always provided a staff meal and secretly allowed him to take leftovers home to his tiny bachelor pad, which proved to be a huge perk for his lifestyle back then. As he had always been more of the quiet, bookish type, the job had also given him a window into a louder and rowdier crowd. From time to time, he enjoyed having his simple solitude disrupted by them while still appreciating the quiet escape of home.

But then, there was her. Iris. Her name was Iris. Arthur’s face bloomed into a smile just thinking of her. Iris was like a walking firework, so much brightness and delight each time she entered a room. Her voice full and compassionate, her laugh deep and endless. Iris was a waitress paying her way through nursing school. Arthur had shyly admired her for weeks, blushing every time she’d beam his way to get a customer a drink, before they had been properly introduced. Her long red hair would be neatly coiled into precise braids for her shift and then each night, she’d ceremoniously unleash them into waved ribbons down her back as she counted her tips and hum along to whatever song had been left on the speakers. It made Arthur think of flames each time he’d watch her hair eagerly catch the light after a long night of work. The effect was always hypnotizing and he’d often find himself dreaming of beautiful, comforting fires. But when she’d shine a smile his way or try to crack a joke in his direction, Arthur would find himself tongue-tied and nervous. 

Until one evening, after a long night of work featuring two separate demanding bachelorette parties who kept Arthur busy with elaborate and complicated mixed drinks orders and ridiculously named shots he had to look up in his dusty bartending book, Iris snuck behind the bar after the restaurant had closed, grabbed Arthur’s hand and whispered, “you know I like you too, right?” before brushing her lips against his blushed cheek. Time stood still in that moment. When Arthur finally exhaled he knew the world would never be the same. 

And just like that, they became a couple. Iris filling the silences of Arthur’s days with a color and a vibrancy he hadn’t known before. She made each day together feel like a parade of music. And when she wasn’t next to him, the quiet moments he had once embraced and adored made him prickly and anxious. Already impatient for Iris to brighten them again. 

Their first kiss had been right outside the restaurant after work. Only a few nights after Iris had openly lit the spark between them. She had initiated this kiss too after Arthur had leaned in and timidly stalled she finally grabbed his shirt and drew him close to her. By the time their mouths touched though, he had found a courage-fueled passion that surprised them both. Arthur knew he would never want to kiss anyone else.

And then just like that, they were in love. The real kind. The type of love that meaningfully punctuates every mundane minute. Every joke is funnier, all treats taste sweeter, and the universe unfolds just for you. It was a beautiful time for Arthur and Iris. The falling part, full of electricity and amusement, longing and laughter. Arthur knew he’d love Iris forever if she’d let him. And he had.    

“I thought I’d find you here, old fart.” A voice beside him said. Arthur turned and then there was her. Only she was different. Still a firework in her own right but perhaps a more subtle one now, an older one. Her eyes still sparkled but her hair was now more snow than fire. She wore a sad smile and it broke Arthur’s heart and put it back together at the same time. 

“I knew I’d find you here though.” She continued softly, her eyes turning to the deserted building. “I only wish they were open so we could enjoy a margarita.” She turned to Arthur and gave him a wink. And like the shuffling of a deck of cards, more pictures of the past painted in colorful noise and chaos flipped quickly inside his head.

Iris. His Iris, his wife, his love. Their life hadn’t been perfect, of course, but it was theirs. Arthur had become a professor, teaching history at the community college. Iris got a job as a pediatric nurse in a nearby practice. They got married. They had three children. Though only one had been truly “planned”. They fell in love deeper each time as they watched and applauded the other’s parenting efforts, growing together into a stronger team, becoming better people. They got a dog. And then a cat. They argued about getting a snake after their son begged but ultimately decided against it (for the record, Arthur had openly entertained the idea while Iris adamantly opposed it). Instead they got some fish. Then another cat and another dog. And the years passed. They made new friends with their neighbors. They lost those they cared about: first Arthur’s parents and then Iris’s. They kept their careers while attending soccer games and school plays, forever fighting for a work life balance that never came easily. They had both silly and serious fights. They went on vacations to appease their children and yearned for time alone together. But when it came and their kids had moved out, they ached for them in ways they hadn’t anticipated. It had changed them. They eventually found their rhythm again and when they both retired they learned to soak up the shared new free hours by taking new trips, exploring new hobbies, and a daily (and treasured) happy hour featuring Arthur’s talents that had gone unused for so long. Overall, life had been kind and generous to them.

But there had also been an accident. Arthur’s car had been hit and totaled by another driver in an instant of distraction, against the swoosh sound of a sent text message. The impact had been shattering in so many ways. Early responders to the scene believed the crash had ended both drivers’ lives. But Arthur had surprised them by responding to CPR efforts and making it to the hospital. Though no one thought Arthur would ever make it home again. 

Iris wouldn’t leave his side. Not when the doctors grimly muttered they didn’t think he’d ever wake up and if he did, she’d be responsible for a vegetable. To which she had responded, through gritted teeth, “then it’s a good thing Arthur and I thought to take up gardening and developed a stronger taste for them” before flipping off that particular pessimistic doctor of the day. Whenever they suggested she return home, she stayed and sang to him; songs they had danced to after their shifts, lullabies that graced their babies to sleep, her own tunes of daily observations, and ballads inspired by their pets because she knew they made him laugh. Arthur was in the hospital for a long time. Iris never gave up on him. Eventually, he did wake up, with Iris’s hand in his.

The doctors warned Iris the accident had left some complications and her husband would never regain full function of his cognitive abilities or his motor skills but she just rolled her eyes and crossed her arms asking when she could take him home. For many more months, Arthur and Iris endured hours of therapy together. He now carried a limp, but Arthur learned to walk again. His speech was still very limited but Iris would remind him with a gentle smirk that she was always better at filling conversations anyway so not much had changed. The hardest part for Arthur was when he remembered that his memories could come and go at random. The very idea of pages from his life’s book being ripped away or reordered could send him down a spiral of sudden rage or desperate sadness. 

Arthur’s eyes pooled with tears. He found his tongue was an anchor keeping his words trapped inside his mouth. He was unable to tell Iris all the things he wished so desperately to say. Now that he had a grasp on these memories, he was terrified he wouldn’t be able to hold onto them much longer. 

“It’s alright, Arthur. I know, honey. I’ll be here to remember our story. It’ll stay safe and protected.” Iris whispered to him as if reading his fears and snatching them away. “And I love you too.” 

Arthur felt his hands starting to take on their own dance again and he looked down at them. How different they looked now from the ones that had once tended a lively bar. Iris smiled.

“You’re making a drink again, huh?” she asked and Arthur stared deeply into her eyes. He felt nothing but warmth and gratitude for this wonderful woman standing next to him, so seen and understood. Iris took one of his hands in hers and they stopped moving. She pulled lightly on his jacket and gave him a soft kiss, right in the place they had once stood together many years ago, at the beginning. And for another moment suspended in time, there they were. Iris and Arthur, two people still living to fall in love with each other. 

“Let’s go home, honey.” Iris whispered and Arthur kept his hand fitted with hers. And slowly, but together, the two offered a silent goodbye to their meeting place, and began walking home.

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THE LIST

The List

Synopsis: Two hopeful romantics walk into a Lyft. One leaving behind a list of New Year’s resolutions for the other to find. 

(Short story created for NYC Midnight’s Short Story Challenge, Round One; promt: Romantic Comedy, New Year’s Eve, An Agent)

Evelyn Sanders wore her self-described hopeful romantic identity like a jacket in the winter. Her heart steady and secured on her sleeve. 

So when she accidentally left her coat in her Lyft, after Douglas made the cruel decision to murder their relationship hours before she planned to kiss him on New Year’s Eve, perhaps it was really her heavy, broken heart that anchored the coat behind, while her hands were managing the parade of tears tearing across her face. But then again, maybe it was something more serendipitous. 

While she exited the car, openly weeping on the street next to Douglas, who hadn’t bothered to notice her cold, coatless shoulders heaving with sobs or tip his driver, by the way, she unknowingly crossed paths with Olivier. Oliver Adkins, a fellow hopeful romantic in his own right, stared at her for a long moment wondering if he should say something before ultimately stepping into the car. Adam, the driver, scoring the moment with aggressive honks of his horn with a fist, clearly eager to make as much money as possible tonight. 

“Water? Phone charger? Commemorative New Year’s Eve hat?” Adam chirped, speeding off before Oliver could look back or fasten his seatbelt. 

“You’re giving out hats?” Oliver asked.

“Obviously.” Adam answered crisply and with a hint of annoyance. Then without confirming that Oliver wanted one, he tossed back a tiny purple hat reading, “Happy New Year!” 

“Um, thank you?” Oliver muttered and he caught Adam’s eyes in the rear view mirror. They had turned to slits of steel. 

“Put it on.” Adam said with a quiet demand so intense that Oliver didn’t bother to question it. Instead, he stretched its elastic to fit around his chin and kept eye contact with Adam until the hat was placed awkwardly on his head. Adam nodded in satisfaction and turned up the music.

Oliver was so transfixed on watching Adam snap into passionately lip synching to Mariah Carey’s, “Fantasy” that it took him a moment to notice he was sharing the backseat with an unfamiliar plum colored peacoat. 

“Oh, I think your last rider may have left her jacket…” Oliver attempted to say over the music. He caught Adam’s eyes again in the mirror and they flashed a deep shade of loathing and frustration before he abruptly turned the music off and sighed. 

“She was a bit distracted. Her douchebag boyfriend dumped her on the way to her friend’s party… because he wanted to date that friend instead.”

“Oh, that’s awful.” Oliver murmured. 

“It’s the second breakup I’ve had tonight.” Adam shrugs. “The other couple was in their late eighties. They both had hearing aids.” And then without sharing another detail of what would have probably been an interesting story, he turned up the music to transform the car to a world of 90’s pop. 

Oliver wondered if either couple were forced into wearing hats too before delicately reaching for the jacket, seeking out a name or any identifying information. He dipped a hand into the pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. Before he could stop himself, he unfolded it to reveal a list written in purple ink titled, “MY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS:” and followed by: 

  • Marie Kondo the apartment (and actually donate the bags of stuff – don’t let them take up space in the closet for months!)
  • Do at least one face mask/week 
  • Try the barre class at the gym 
  • Drink more water
  • Actually eat the full bag of spinach/kale before it goes bad and gets thrown away
  • Stop ordering delivery so much 
  • And stop watching so much reality TV (like, maybe just one season of 90 Day Fiance at a time?)
  • Read one book/month
  • Ask for a raise at work
  • Find an agent! 

Oliver smiled. Her handwriting seemed so upbeat, almost bouncy? If somehow demanding that he take it in and let the words stick to his brain. He didn’t know why he was so immediately drawn to it but the idea of the list remaining ignored and unnoticed seemed too sad; these hopes and aspirations of a crying stranger deserved to live somewhere. Even if it was just in Oliver’s protection. 

“Hey, is there any way to get this jacket back to the last rider? Is her name in your phone?” Oliver asked. 

“No, I can’t pull up any info on passengers once they’ve completed the ride and besides, it was all done on her ex-boyfriend’s end. I could try and message him via the app but he’s an asshole. Also, I can keep it up here in case she finds a way to get a hold of me.” 

Oliver nodded. And then clutched the list in a gentle fist before passing the jacket to Adam. Again, unsure what inspired him to keep it, but unable to let suffocate in a car with tiny novelty hats. 

When it was time to get out, Oliver thanked Adam for the ride and he stepped onto the pavement questioning why he planned to spend the night in the company of people that he barely liked, most likely drinking too much cheap champagne, and it made his stomach twist in premature discomfort. 

Yes, he told Maria he’d be there. But he knew the reality that awaited tomorrow morning if the two of them ended up stumbling home together again. She’d tell him in a pouty voice that he was such a great guy but she didn’t see him as a boyfriend, all the while sneaking peeks at her phone and swiping left and right across a sea of male faces. He’d pretend he didn’t care but would go home hating himself for hoping this time would be different.

He thought about the coatless and now sans resolutions girl and wondered if she was still cold and crying, kicking himself for not stopping a second longer to ask her if she was okay. Or get a better glimpse of her face in case he ever had the opportunity to see her again… Oliver shook his head trying to force himself to focus. What was he doing? He suddenly had the strongest urge to just return home and save himself from the shattered expectations of New Year’s Eve. 

So he did. Keeping the tiny purple hat on his head and opting for a bus to get him home. Four episodes of 90 Day Fiance and too much Chinese food takeout for one person later, he celebrated his decision as his new year officially began.  Grateful to be falling asleep on his own worn couch than sharing a reluctant bed with someone who had permanently friendzoned him.

January started like most Januarys before it, full of glimmers of hope that tend to burn out and quickly succumb to the cold and dark nature of the month. So on a particularly chilly morning while Oliver shuffled and banged his way around his small studio, desperate to find where he had left his damn keys, he found the resolution list instead. Without thinking he smoothed it out and placed it on his refrigerator. Which was also where he found his keys, sitting on the top of a bowl of fruit, languidly draped there and mocking him with their casualty. 

Oliver grabbed at them with a huff, hurried out the door, late to work and already mentally shielding himself from his boss and her wrath. Though, mainly angry because he wouldn’t have time to grab a bagel before heading into the office. 

When he got home, the list greeted him, beckoning him to consider it again. He blamed the list for his secret bingefest of 90 Day Fiance (and it’s endless episodes and spinoffs that all seemed equally addictive!) but decided to read all the resolutions again. And again. Then, after two beers on an empty stomach, he asked himself if he could complete each one. Some were obviously more in his wheelhouse than others (like, what exactly is “barre”?) and now that he was hooked to freaking 90 Day Fiance, he didn’t love the idea of having to limit his viewing pleasure. 

But the first one hit a bit close to home. Literally. If today’s case of the missing keys proved anything, it may have been a nudge from the universe to start getting his shit together and rid himself of some of the clutter. 

He threw an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo for some inspiration and then immediately found himself teary-eyed and slightly crazed, overly eager to spark joy around him. 

Sometime before midnight, Oliver looked around his now destroyed apartment full of random piles and realized he was too tired to continue. And, honestly, he figured, Marie Kondo knew this stuff takes time. 

 A few weeks and a few dozen missing keys frenzies later, Oliver closed his final trash bag full of old t-shirts and walked it to the closest Goodwill. His apartment looked great. All thoughtfully arranged and tidy. It had been nearly impossible for him to part with any of his books (screw that idea of only having 30, Maria Kondo, are you a monster?) but he had managed to put them all in one giant bookshelf and eliminate some of their piles he had kept around the place. 

After completing the drop off, and feeling the slight sense of spring in his step, Oliver passed the gym he technically had a membership to but almost never bothered to visit. He glanced at the window which held a small pink sign reading, “Now Offering Barre!” and his stomach tightened a bit. He took a breath and stumbled inside grabbing a monthly calendar with the class times and promised himself he could take a look at it once he was safe at home. Most likely he wouldn’t be able to make the classes anyway…

Right before Oliver reached home, ready to congratulate himself on a job well done with the apartment and for technically going to the gym today, with some more 90 Day Fiance, he stopped into a Duane Reade for a snack. The store was crowded, so to try and navigate himself to where he wanted to go, he slipped down an aisle he never visited. And his eyes were instantly full of various facial cleansers and moisturizers in different colored bottles. How could anyone pick anything with all these choices and wordy descriptions? It was uniquely brain numbing. He blinked and focused his eyes at a shelf reading, “Face Masks” as Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” played in the background. Oliver was transported back to finding the list in the first place, remembering that it had mentioned something about this too… 

He quickly tried to find an inexpensive, basic option. His eyes landed on a “green julep” flavored one. He grabbed it and maneuvered out of the aisle, trying to keep his eyes on the ground so he wouldn’t be mentally assaulted by other choices.  

A few hours later, Oliver had to admit, the face mask idea was awesome. His skin felt cold but pampered. He imagined it holding a new glow once the mask had been washed off that would brighten the world. He took a look at the resolution list and the gym’s schedule, which were now fridge buddies, sharing a magnet to stay in place, and scratched his head. Oliver knew this whole idea was pretty absurd, yet there was still something inside of him daring him forward, almost forcing him to consider and complete each line. Whether it was in honor of that crying stranger he should have talked to or because maybe these suggestions were helping him feel like he had some more control over his life, he wasn’t sure. But it was the hopeful romantic in him that needed to continue and see where fate would take him next.

The rest of the year tumbled by, like years tend to do once spring sets in and Oliver moved with it. He tried that barre class (which turned out to be a ballet inspired workout routine, who knew?) and almost passed out in the first class. It was pretty bad. But, as brutal as it was and regardless of his humiliation, he made himself try it again. The class was mostly full of beautiful women with an abundance of athleticism who also still kindly smiled at him for his own weaker efforts. And, he committed to drinking more water and eating things he could shove spinach/kale into, never once letting a bag of it spoil. The delivery thing wasn’t so hard now that he had to get through those bags of greens and once he finished catching up on 90 Day Fiance, he could cut back because there wasn’t as much to watch. 

Considering how many books he had already read this year, that resolution had been an easy one. Asking for a raise had taken several anxiety stomach aches and endless sweaty palms to attempt. But he did it anyway. He plead his case to his boss, arguing that he was ready for a promotion and salary boost right before the Christmas holiday and was sparked full of joy when she agreed. 

On New Year’s Eve, Oliver took the list off the fridge, finally ready to let it go, and hopped into a rideshare car to attend a party of a woman from his barre class. He placed the list on the seat next to him as the other door opened and a woman stepped in. She sat down and picked up the list to hand back to him but took a look at it and gasped.

“This is my handwriting… I wrote this… last year?” Her hands shook as she looked to Oliver with surprise. 

“This is your list?” Oliver said slowly before a laugh escaped his throat, catching the woman off guard but making her laugh too.

“It was in the jacket I lost last year… right after my ex ended things… How is it here now…?” She studied the list, her eyes rolling at some of the lines.

“Did you still complete your resolutions?” Oliver asked softly. 

“I didn’t find an agent… I’m an actor.” She said simply with a shrug. 

“I’m Oliver.” He said extending a hand, “I’m a Literary Agent.” Her eyes lit up and she took his hand. 

“I’m Evelyn.” She said smiling, her heart feeling a sense of unexpected renewed hope.

“I see you two are going to the same address?” Their Lyft driver interrupted, breaking their spell for a moment. Evelyn and Oliver looked at each other again in surprise. 

“A girl from my barre class-” They both said at the same time unable to keep from laughing. 

“Can I offer you some water? Gum? Novelty New Year’s Eve hats?” The driver asked, winking in the rear view mirror. 

“Two hats?” Oliver asked. Evelyn nodded, fiddled the purple string around her ring finger before fitting it on her hopeful head. Her heart ablaze on her sleeve, ready to celebrate a new year.

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San Francisco Theater Pub

Ashley Cowan dramaturgs her own audition process. 

On Monday night I bombed an audition. And no, I’m not being hard on myself. I was really terrible. I got up, introduced myself, and a few words into my first monologue I just blanked. It was the worst. Especially because it was a piece from my homeboy, Willy Shakes! The same fella I’ve been writing about these past few weeks in honor of Taming of the Shrew. But while those guys were honoring the language, I was destroying it.

Maybe you’ve been there. You have those lines down cold a moment before you step into the audition room; you’ve literally run it twenty times that day without freezing up and then boom. And you wail, “why oh why, did it all leave my brain the second I actually needed it?”

Needless to say, I spent the rest of the evening curled up…

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